I was back at Carnegie on Friday to hear Pierre-Laurent Aimard for the second night in a row, this time playing the big hall with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra. Once again, Aimard was performing music that had recently been written for him: George Benjamin's Duet for piano and orchestra (2008). Benjamin and Aimard are old friends, having met more than thirty years ago at the Paris Conservatory, where both were students of Messiaen and his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod.
Similar to Elliott Carter's Interventions, which had it's NY premiere at Carnegie last month, Duet is less a concerto than a dialogue between piano and orchestra. But, while Carter wrote Interventions to sound like an argument, Duet felt more like a dance, with the piano and orchestra playing off of each other. Benjamin's compositional influences could be heard throughout: there was bird song (Messiaen), glissandi (Ligeti), and dense, often difficult structures (Carter). But even more startling were several passages of quiet serenity and tonal beauty that sounded as if they'd been lifted wholesale from some English folk melody. The whole thing was over in less than fifteen minutes, and felt shorter than it should have been. During curtain calls, Benjamin arrived onstage to embrace Aimard, to polite - if tepid - applause.
The remainder of the program was given over to the massive bombast of Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, with Welser-Möst coaxing an emphatic and intense performance out of his players. But, at the same time, it felt completely out of context: after the Benjamin, the experience was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a blunt object.
During the standing ovation that followed, a composer friend with whom I'd emigrated from the balcony leaned over to share his reaction.
"I don't understand the people here. That first piece was a near-masterpiece, and it got a very tepid reaction. And this gets a standing ovation? I love Shostakovich, but this was thinly written and not really interesting. It's like he didn't put any thought into it."
Wow. Now, that's what I call Perspective. (More pics below.)